Sony’s Super-Slim PlayStation 3: One Step Forward, One Step Back

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Last week Sony released a surprise three-quel PlayStation 3 — an even slimmer, lighter rendition of its six-year-old games console. It then dropped that into a new bundle, raised the price by $20 and declared it “the ultimate gaming and entertainment system choice for those of you looking for the best value this holiday season.” So is it?

That depends on so many things nowadays: What type of games do you like? Do you have a system already? Do you prefer Sony’s exclusives or Microsoft’s? What about Nintendo’s? Which ecosystem appeals more, Sony’s PlayStation Network or Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE? Where are your friends playing? And what about the Wii U?

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What I can tell you is a little about the new PS3 from a design standpoint. I’ve been playing with one, and while it’s admirable in many ways, I have a few significant reservations.

The redesigned model resembles the original PS2, though instead of the latter’s boxy right angles, it sports a curved, elliptical frame. Sony says it’s roughly 25% smaller and 20% lighter than the prior slimline model, and that sounds about right when you stand both units side-by-side. It can still be laid flat or positioned vertically, though it’s now thin enough that placing it on its side without a base is probably a bad idea. In a prior post I called it “almost book-sized,” though now that I’ve played with one, I’d say we’re talking more like a coffee table book.

All the basic PS3 features remain: two USB 2.0 ports and a power on/off light along the front, and Ethernet, HDMI, optical and AV multi-out connectors across the back. The power-on/eject switch is now a depressible bar with those functions at either end, almost like a rocker switch (that doesn’t actually rock). The only thing that’s changed is the hard drive size: You’re getting 250 GB here, a modest upgrade from the prior model’s 160 GB.

In the box: a power cable, a composite A/V cable (isn’t it time to retire these?), a DualShock 3 controller plus a mini-USB cable, a copy of Uncharted 3 (Game of the Year edition), Dust 514 (the free-to-play EVE Online-connected shooter) and a voucher for $30 worth of Dust 514-related digital content.

Instead of the prior model’s matte finish, this one sports a broad, ribbed stripe down its middle, which at first blush seems like a style move, when in fact it’s Sony’s boldest design change: To access the Blu-ray drive, one half of this ribbed section slides over the other half, revealing the drop-in spindle. Yep, the automated slot-loader is no more.

I’m guessing this was a cost-saving measure, because it feels like one. You can open the loader manually, which is where the ribbing helps by giving you a fingerhold, or push the eject bar, prompting the sleeve to shoot sideways with a moderately loud mechanical noise. There’s no automated close option, so the sleeve has to be pulled shut manually.

Opening and closing the tray while the PS3 is positioned sideways, as you might expect, feels a little awkward. Sony seems to want this thing laid flat, which — since you can’t slot-load from the side anymore — makes it a problematic choice for those of us who slide these things into narrow spaces or ones higher up, say above your television in an entertainment center cabinet (this is my predicament).

Another unexpected issue with the new PS3 is drive noise. The original PS3′s optical drive was relatively quiet, though the cooling fan could sound like a hair dryer when things got cooking. The first slimline system rectified this, reducing fan noise to a whisper, while the drive remained almost indiscernibly silent.

By comparison, the new PS3′s optical drive is much noisier when spinning up discs. I noticed it immediately playing Resident Evil 6 as the disc spun-up, stopped, spun-up, stopped and so on times a zillion over the course of just a few minutes of play. The stop-start, spin-up/spin-down noise was noticeable enough that I had to turn up the TV volume slightly.

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Dropping Resident Evil 6 back in my original slim PS3, the drive noise all but disappeared. I’m assuming that’s because the older model employs sound-damping, where in the new model, you’re separated from the drive spindle by just a few millimeters of ABS plastic. We’re not talking a deal-breaker here, and you’ll hear this less the further away you sit (I sit close, usually playing on a 22-inch TV in my office), but it’s worth considering if you’re sensitive about mechanical noise.

Otherwise it’s still very much a PlayStation 3. It supports Sony’s customer-friendly storage upgrade policy, allowing the use of store-bought 2.5-inch SATA hard drives, your pick, instead of locking you into a proprietary part and charging a premium, as Microsoft does. And it gets no warmer than the prior model, venting heated air quietly from the rear.

Speaking of price, let’s talk about that $270. The unbundled 160 GB PS3 is $250. By throwing in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and Dust 514 (plus the content voucher), Sony’s seen fit to hike the price of the system $20. Here’s what I wrote about that recently:

Sony’s trying to spin the new PS3 as a “better value” with the bigger hard drive and pack-in game, but the game — Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – is the third in a series you’ve only ever been able to play on the PS3. Sony’s asking new buyers, who’ve never played an Uncharted, to leap in with a game that depends to a large extent on your appreciation of the characters and their relationships through the first two games. If you want to sell to newcomers, why not include all three in the Uncharted series? Or something with more cross-demographic appeal, like the original LittleBigPlanet and its sequel?

I’m not sure where the “value” is here. You’re asked to pay more for a system that, while further reduced in size, is in some ways a step back from the last model. That, and the pack-in games strike me as appealing more to a demographic that already owns a PS3 than newcomers.

My guess is Sony’s hoping to recoup some of its margin losses, by most estimates significant, on the PS3 over the years. The company is probably assuming Uncharted 3 works well enough as a standalone game (and there’s an argument for that) to lure newcomers intrigued by exclusives like God of War III, Demon’s Souls, Gran Turismo 5, LittleBigPlanet, Infamous, Metal Gear Solid 4, Resistance: Fall of Man and Heavy Rain.

As for Dust 514, CCP’s free-to-play online shooter, it’s technically still in beta, so it’s hard to say whether the $30 in digital content vouchers qualify as “value-add” or as more of a move to lure beta testers (where the “value-add” leans more in CCP’s direction).

While I like the look of the new PS3, it feels like Sony’s still reaching here. It’s not the slam dunk you’d expect from a company that nearly had one with the prior redesign. I’m just not sure the bundle content and cheaper-feeling drive bay get the job done. The price seems high for a six-year-old console, and whatever Sony wants to argue about “total value,” people respond more to price drops. We’re seeing consumer spending on video games trend down, after all.

If you’re a newcomer eyeing one of these, or the $300, 500 GB model with Assassin’s Creed III due at the end of October, it’s not that they’re a bad deal, it’s that I’m pretty sure Sony could have come up with a much better one, especially this late in the PS3′s lifecycle.

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